Remember Kyle Wellwood? The guy who was the butt of endless fat jokes a few years ago? Actually, who am I kidding, he’s still the butt of endless fat jokes. Remember how he didn’t get signed as a free agent this last off-season until September? Remember him?
Because Wellwood has 17 points in 24 games and is second on the Winnipeg Jets in scoring behind Evander Kane. Until Kane’s 2-goal game against Ottawa on Tuesday, Wellwood was actually leading the Jets in scoring. The diminutive centre is on pace for a career-high 65 points. To put that in real perspective, his previous career-high was 45 and in his last 3 full seasons he didn’t crack 30.
You might think that it’s because he’s getting more opportunities with the Jets, but he’s averaging less than 15 minutes per game, barely a minute more ice time than he averaged the last three season, is still only playing on the second unit on the powerplay (where he also played on the Canucks), and has been shuttled between all four lines. He just seems to have suddenly rediscovered his offensive ability.
I find myself endlessly fascinated by Wellwood, a fascination that was sparked when the Vancouver Canucks initially claimed him off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs. He interests me because he appears to be everything that a modern hockey player is not. He’s short and pudgy, where most hockey players are tall and stocky. Where most hockey players lie to the media, he’s brutally honest. Where a lot of hockey players can be loud-mouthed and brash, he’s quiet and humble. Where many hockey players revel in their physical prowess and brag about their penalty minutes, Wellwood once went 159 games without a single penalty.
He’s an unrepentant oddball: he reads Ayn Rand, finds television boring, and uses what is quite possibly the NHL’s shortest stick. All of these qualities that set him apart from other hockey players, combined with the unfortunate poolside gut shot, made it difficult to actually see Wellwood as a hockey player.
It got to the point that Jonathan Willis openly wondered why he was even still in the NHL, as it seemed that if he wasn’t putting up points, he wasn’t doing anything. I did my best to answer him, pointing out that he is far better defensively than he gets credit for, but the writing was on the wall: as a free agent, the best offer he and his agent could wrangle was a professional tryout from the Phoenix Coyotes where he got outplayed by Kyle Turris and made his way to the KHL. Getting cut from the Coyotes in favour of Kyle Turris is really about as low as a hockey career can go. Or so it seemed.
Things actually got worse for Wellwood. The KHL coach that initially brought him in was promptly canned and Wellwood found himself playing for a coach that didn’t know who he was and didn’t particularly care: in one game Wellwood said he had only one minute of icetime. Then there was the constant worry of running into a pack of wild dogs while carrying home his groceries. Seriously. When his fiancee became pregnant, he was probably thrilled to have an excuse to head back to North America.
After that, things turned around for the pudgy playmaker. After getting signed by the Blues, Wellwood was claimed off re-entry waivers by the Sharks and was a solid depth player for them on their playoff run, even causing Jonathan Willis to sing his praises.
And yet, once again, he couldn’t find a team willing to sign him in free agency, coming just short of going to the Sharks camp on a tryout, which would have been absolutely bizarre after being a solid contributor to the team the previous season. Finally, the Jets signed him in September to a $700,000 contract, a deal that is beginning to look like one of the biggest steals of the offseason.
His success isn’t an illusion based on a string of good luck either. Admittedly, his shooting percentage of 21.9% is unsustainable, though it’s just a fraction off his career-high of 19.8%, but his other underlying numbers indicate that he’s succeeding despite not everything going his way.
Wellwood is leading all Jets forwards in Corsi and is second on the team behind the injured Tobias Enstrom, indicating that he consistently drives puck possession into the offensive end. He’s doing this while facing the fourth toughest quality of competition and averaging the seventh most minutes per game among Jets forwards. Then we get to what has been called the most useful statistic in hockey: PDO.
A lot of players who are scoring at an above-average pace at this point in the season are riding an unusually high PDO number (why, hello there Florida’s first line). Essentially, both the team’s shooting percentage and/or save percentage are unsustainably high and will eventually regress. Over the course of a full season, bounces even out and that shot that ricocheted off a defender and past the goalie early in the season will instead bounce just wide or hit the post.
Kyle Wellwood, despite being on pace for 20 more points than his career-high, isn’t getting the bounces. His PDO on the season is an unsustainably low 956 and will regress towards 1000 over the course of the season. Most of that PDO number is from his goaltender’s save percentage, explaining why Wellwood is minus-1 on the season despite his strong possession numbers, but his team’s shooting percentage when he is on the ice is a team-low 7.01% as well. Those numbers indicate that his scoring at even-strength might actually increase over the course of the season.
Wellwood is a weird guy who is tough to figure out. By all appearances, he has no business being in the NHL. He’s small, he can’t shoot the puck, and he doesn’t hit anyone. But he’s also remarkably effective at both ends of the ice. He’s a bizarre little enigma, which makes it nearly impossible to dislike him.